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The Good, The Bad, and The Covid-19

Yesterday, Ball State University announced that we will be suspending in-person classes for the remainder of the semester, effective Monday. I wasn’t surprised, honestly, and I’m actually a little relieved.

Welcome to your new classroom!
Photo WDnet Studio via StockSnap

I’m not given to panic. But I know I’ve been dragging lately, and honestly the requirement to entirely change my teaching strategy overnight excites me. I feel immense relief and even a bit of peace at the chance for something, as Monty Python might say, completely different.

I’ve taught online a fair bit at this point. I may not specialize in it, but if my student evaluations are any measurement (they may not be), I’m pretty good at it, maybe even better than I am at face to face teaching, and I’m pretty comfortable with asynchronous interactions, which is my preferred way to run an online class.

My biggest fear regarding the pivot here is actually that, lately, I’ve been struggling to concentrate unless I’m working in the library or with other people. At home I just stare at the screen. I know that for many people telecommuting is a great option; for me, it is a recipe for missed deadlines apparently, at least right now. But it’s a problem I’ll have to solve, one way or another.

And for people in the same situation, staring down the barrel of a sudden switch to online—and I know there are many of you!—I understand the fear of what we may be giving up by not being able to meet with our students.

Yesterday my office hours were basically a revolving door. I don’t often have to ask a student to wait while I work with another student, but yesterday I did, because I was apparently just that popular. And I feel good about the work I did, because it was meaningful work. It was work to help them achieve their goals beyond just my own classes’ scopes; it was work to assuage anxieties, tend talent, and foster futures. Yesterday I found myself not only teaching writing, but acting as a mentor, an adviser, a counselor, and just a genuinely caring person. It felt whole.

And I recognize that in asynchronous online-only instruction, these kinds of magical moments where a conversation starts as being about source handling or something else mundane and ends up being about hopes and dreams, fears and anxieties, or whatever else are less likely to occur. Less likely, yes, but not entirely absent.

Working front home is the new office hours
Image by Nao Triponez via StockSnap

Online instruction is a different space and requires different listening strategies. But there is definitely one advantage that we have, those of us suddenly forced to change our entire course structure overnight because of a tiny virus (as of this past week, we are legion). Our greatest advantage is this: We already know our students. They already trust us. We already have a rapport.

This is something very different than an entirely online asynchronous course that was designed as such. Although many of us are focused on the fact that we don’t have time to carefully design the kinds of workflow and scaffolding that make an effective online environment (we don’t; we have to acknowledge that), we can’t lose sight of what we do have that most online courses don’t: an established classroom community. Our students know our voice and style already. We know theirs.

One of the challenges of online teaching, as many people have already acknowledged, is building community and rapport—that is, keeping the human trust that makes it all feel real and whole and makes learning work. But that work is already done. All we need to do now, really, is keep in contact, keep delivering content and feedback, keep structuring assignments, and keep checking in with our students. The same stuff we would normally be doing at this part of the semester. We’re just doing it a little sideways now. And that’s ok.

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